After a couple exhibition victories over Northern Kentucky University (76-71) and Bellarmine University (77-58), Mick Cronin's basketball Bearcats are ready for the regular season, and that season gets underway with three games this weekend in the Peggy Cronin Classic, named after the deceased Bearcat head coach's mother.
The action begins Friday evening at Fifth Third Arena when the Bearcats host Belmont College. The Bruins will not be a pushover. Belmont has represented the Atlantic Sun Conference in each of the last two NCAA tournaments and return three of its top five scorers from last year's club that posted a 23-10 record before losing to the Georgetown Hoyas in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Hoping to lead Belmont to the season opening upset will be preseason 1st team all league performer Justin Hare. The 6' 2" senior sharpshooter averaged 14.3 points a game last season and will get plenty of help from juniors Andy Wicke and Matthew Dotson.
Wicke ranked 16th nationally last season in three point shooting by hitting 44% of his long range bombs while the 6' 8" Dotson provides the Bruins with some size inside. Another Bruin player that Coach Cronin knows well is Shane Dansby. The 6' 4" swingman was recruited to Murray State by Cronin before later transferring to Belmont.
Belmont has some impressive height on its roster in addition to Matthew Dotson with sophomores Keaton Belcher (6' 9") and Mike Dejworek (6' 11").
The Bruins will certainly be well coached with veteran head man Rick Byrd on their bench. Byrd is one of only eleven active head coaches in the NCAA to remain at the same school for at least twenty seasons. Byrd's overall record as a head coach is 516-294 with 424 of those victories coming during his tenure at Belmont.
On Saturday night the Bearcats will square off against Western Carolina. The Catamounts have some Ohio ties. Larry Hunter, who helped develop a number of NBA players at Ohio University from 1989 to 2001, is Western Carolina's head coach. In addition, Hunter managed to sign a player that originally had intentions of becoming a Bearcat.
South Webster, Ohio's Nick Aldridge verbally committed to play his college basketball in Clifton for Bob Huggins prior to his dismissal/firing. Hunter recognized an opportunity to add a talented player to his roster during the coaching transition at Cincinnati and managed to persuade the 6' 7"/230 pound forward to join him at Western Carolina. It turned out to be a great addition too as Aldridge averaged 18.3 points as a freshman and was named 2nd team All-Southern Conference and a mid-major All-American.
Western Carolina returns two other starters, Arnold Gore and Brandon Giles, from last season's team that posted an 11-20 record. The Catamounts have no one taller than 6' 8" on their roster and list no player as a center.
Expect Coach Hunter's guys to utilize the three point shot. They have broken the school record for made three pointers in each of Hunter's two seasons in Cullowhee, North Carolina. Last season the Catamounts hit for 226 treys.
The final Bearcat game in the tournament will come against Bowling Green State University, but Coach Cronin and his staff should be familiar with the Falcons' system since Louis Orr, previously the head coach at Seton Hall, is the new BGSU head coach.
Orr will have his work cut out for him as he takes over a program that was 13-18 last season with a league worst 3-13 record in MAC play. The prospect for a big improvement his year looks bleak as the Falcons are picked by the media to again finish last in the Eastern Division.
Despite the media's pessimistic prediction, Bowling Green does return some of its offensive fire power in Nate Miller and Ryne Hamblet. Both averaged double figures last season, and the 6' 4" Miller puller down 7.7 rebounds a game.
Sophomore big men Otis Polk and Marc Lawson both stand 6' 9" and could help BGSU around the basket this year but will have to show marked improvement after averaging a combined 2 points and 3 rebounds last season.
With a brutal non-conference schedule that includes UAB, Illinois State, Xavier, Memphis, and North Carolina State, the Bearcats probably need to sweep all three games in this tournament before heading into BIG EAST play on New Year's Day against Louisville.
Basketball Season Tips Off Friday
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